By James Lawrence - Georgia - 3 months ago

The NEO Black Sea Community Hackathon

This weekend Tbilisi hosted the inaugural NEO Black Sea Community Hackathon. The Hackathon was held by Georgian American University (GAU) in their GeoLab facilities, participants began developing at 7 pm Friday 28 September and continued on until Sunday at 2 pm, all up, a possible 43 hours of non-stop coding. The event was perhaps a world first as the digital NEO Hackathon and the physical Tbilisi Marathon coincided simultaneously.

Before the kick-off of the hackathon was the NEO Black Sea Community Assembly, an event that deserves its own article, for later this week. The entire weekend's events were made possible through a massive collaborative effort of Spotcoin, NEO, nOS, Georgia Innovation and Technology Agency (GITA), GAU and GeoLab.

For those of you scratching your head as to what a ‘hackathon’ is, fear not, a hackathon can be a loosely defined as an event of any duration where people come together to solve problems. Participants typically form teams of about 2 to 5 people, take out their laptops, as events tend to be technology driven and dive into problems. Generally, a finished product is not required by the end of the event, but an MVP or Minimum Viable Product, which is proof of concept for a team’s idea, notable results of past hackathons include the Facebook ‘Like’ button and Chat function.

As with most Hackathons, the NEO Black Sea Community Hackathon had a theme, “Improving Government Services using smart contracts”. The event sought to inspire competitors to come up with creative solutions with NEO blockchain technology to make government services for the citizens of Georgia more efficient and cost-effective. The theme also worked with NEO’s ethos of Smart Economy development.

Competitors were encouraged to take advantage of NEO Smart Contract functionality, to streamline solutions where two actions are performed as one. Examples with the hackathon brief were to address financial concerns, reduce wrongful manipulation or fraud, and increase trust.

Teams weren’t limited to traditional services or even current laws, participants were encouraged to develop projects that tackled whole new arenas not yet approached by the government, as long as the welfare of citizens was given prominence. The aim of the day was innovation and it was rewarded handsomely. The first place winner received $2,500 equivalent in the NEO digital currency GAS, second place earned $1,500, and third $1,000. The hackathon was also sponsored by nOS, the NEO-based project that provides a virtual operating system and gateway to the decentralized internet. nOS offered to further sweeten the deal, if the winners developed their project using the nOS system, they would have their prize money doubled, which the winning team did and were rewarded with $5000 worth of GAS.

Hackathon Project Manager, Tatia Kakhetelidze, was key in the organization of the hackathon. From her history in community management within the Georgian and crypto spaces as Spotcoin Community Relations Manager, Kakhetelidze viewed the event as having true potential to make real change in Georgia, even at a government level, “[We want to] make business and governmental services easy and approachable for everybody… Georgia has a big potential to accept and adopt ideas developed from hackathons more than other countries, as we have already started the pace in that direction. I think it’s very realistic that some of the projects attract government attention.”

Kakhetelidze was correct with her assumption as within the panel of judges was Elene Grigolia, Project Manager at World Bank funded “Irrigation and Land Market Development” Project (LMD Component) implemented by National Agency of Public Registry (NAPR). The NAPR is well known for using blockchain to record land registration, one of the first applications of blockchain by a government to public services in the world. Grigolia grilled competitors on their blockchain solutions, the feasibility and application processes but showed interest in projects that were aimed toward an extension of public registration.

The hackathon represented a real opportunity for competitors beyond the prizes, with representation from government, international and Georgian based blockchain projects and crypto-enthusiasts all in attendance at the event. The judging panel itself was an example of this diversity. Brought together by Hackathon Project Coordinator, Alexi Amniashvili, it included Zdravko Georgiev and Yasen Mihailov, NEO developers from Bulgaria, Chris Dawe, CEO of Dutch-based Effect.AI, and Tom Zhang, a NEO Global Development software engineer from Shanghai, China.

As mentioned above, Zdravko Georgiev, a NEO Community Member, came from Bulgaria for the event. Apart from judging, Georgiev was also a motivator throughout the weekend's hackathon, helping participants with their projects. He called the ability to write in a number of programming languages such as C# and Javascript, an “appealing factor” for NEO, but his role as a motivator was required as the blockchain is still quite young, “The teams have a lot of questions, it’s a new technology, there aren’t that many resources online yet, but we are getting there and developing.”

Georgiev has attended many hackathons as both a competitor and an organizer, he even has plans to host a NEO hackathon in Sofia, Bulgaria late this year or early next year, for him the power of hackathons come from their friendly and collaborative nature, “You go there to compete with other teams, you also exchange ideas and approaches to problems, so it’s a great opportunity to learn because you’re stimulated, not only by the prizes but by the spirit of all the participants that pushes the hackathon forward… The enthusiasm that surrounds these events can be very powerful, to spark the motivation of developers.”

The NEO Black Sea Community Hackathon was Georgiev’s first visit to Tbilisi and was impressed with the level of blockchain development in Georgia as well as the vibrant and enthusiastic community, “It’s amazing - the Prime Minister is 37 years old, so young and so open to technology. I think he speaks well for the future of the country and particularly his interest in blockchain is something I was surprised to see. For example, in Bulgaria, I don’t think anyone in government is interested in something like this at this point. It’s a huge plus here.” Georgiev had a “sure hope” that the Black Sea could prove to be the next hub in blockchain technologies. Georgiev on what it takes for competitors to win a hackathon, “They need to have technical skills most of all, and a great idea because let’s be fair, in a few days you can not finish a product, if you have a good proof of concept and a great idea, this is what it takes to win.”

Presentations were set at 4 pm Sunday, where each team had only five minutes to present their ideas and field questions regarding their projects. The presentations represented the end of a long road for the teams, according to Tatia, “[There were] teams that had spent the nights. We provide them with everything they need, the drinks, food and a comfortable environment with GeoLab. So we’ve had teams that haven’t left the building for three days…”

Competitors came from a number of different backgrounds, from university students from San Diego State, GAU and Georgian Technical, to mining companies such as Birtvi and Golden Fleece, as well as established software development teams such as Vobi and iSnipe. The hackathon began with 13 teams that were whittled down to just 7 in the end, by what Tatia Kakhetelidze called “insurmountable obstacles”. Some participants took past experiences as inspiration, such as the team from San Diego State University, who took past property fraud problems they had faced to create an immutable and transparent ownership ledger, they called NEO Service Hub. The Golden Fleece team applied NEO smart contracts to university diplomas to have an irreversible proof of authenticity for the documents, all available to view online and identifiable by QR code.

In the end it was George Lagidze's Birtvi team that won with their proposed system of tokenized tourism to incentivize both tourists to visit different locations throughout Georgia and for the government to improve upon these sights and to further promote them as well, “We wanted to make tourists as happy as ever, to make them visit more often to our country, they are happier, they can give and take with [Georgia]... that’s the most important thing in the world, to make things easier and happier.” The team had competed in one hackathon before this one but were unsuccessful. Birtvi was one of the teams to never leave GeoLab throughout the three days and estimate they got around 2 hours sleep throughout, Lagidze estimates he drank 20 energy drinks himself. When asked what advice he would give future competitors, Lagidze said; “For all these days I thought we could not win, I was not sure of myself. Now I know that whatever idea future developers come up they have to keep believing in themselves that’s the most important thing. If they believe in themselves and their ideas, they will be successful.”

Overall, it was hard not to appreciate the feeling of collaboration and welcoming atmosphere throughout the weekend, no one was too busy or big to explain something, and although they were competitors, you never would have guessed with the way the team's helped each other out. The NEO Black Sea Community Hackathon spoke tremendously to the future of the industry and community in Georgia and throughout the Black Sea region, from the vast supply of young talent, to the engaged and encouraging stakeholders from government to private enterprise. The future looks bright and blockchain-ed in the Black Sea community.